During the COVID19 pandemic I’ve had several similar conversations with folks in my congregation. From experienced, mature leaders to new Christians, at some point most people have commented the same thing: “I’m finding it hard to engage with God just now.“
For some people, this means their Bible reading has taken a hit. During the months of lockdown, the desire to open their Bible and engage with God has been non-existant. For others, this means their prayer lives have been affected. With no desire (or realisation of the need) for prayer, people have found their connection with God to be lacking. For others, the desire to attend church has gone, their Sunday routines having taken a knock after 18+ months of lockdown. In many conversations, the term “spiritual apathy” has come up, and I think it’s a fitting term.
I’m betting for many of you the above conversation sounds familar. Having reflected on this (and having gone through it myself), I’ve put together 5 reasons why I believe this happens, and how I think we can begin to break out of this.
1. Lack of Gathered Worship
One encouragement I’ve found myself giving to people over this past year and a half is this: if you’ve found yourself struggling Spiritually since not being able to meet together, be encouraged. I’d be more worried if the sudden lack of meeting together didn’t cause any change in our spiritual or thought lives!
The church is the people of God. The local church is when the gathered people of God come together to worship. At services we come to encourage one another (Hebrews 10:24-25, 1 Thess 5:11), to sing over one another (Ephesians 5:19), to sit under the proclaimed word of God together (Colossians 3:16, Acts 2:42), to take communion together (1 Cor 10:16), to pray for one another (James 5:16, Ephesians 6:18, 1 Tim 2:1), challenge one another (James 5:16), and to enjoy being with one another (1 Thess 5:11, 1 John 1:3). All of these things are hugely important for a healthy spiritual walk with Jesus.
Many of us have lacked these things over the past year and a half: it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that many of us would find ourselves struggling as a result! “Going to church” isn’t just something we do to tick off another box on the “Good Christian” card – going to church is an act of worship, a decision we make to come be with the gathered people of God and remind ourselves of his goodness, grace and mercy.
In Acts we read that the early believers were devoted to gathering together, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.
In Hebrews, we are encouraged not to give up meeting together – which hits a lot harder when you realise that document was originally written for Christians who were being persecuted for doing so.
Gathering together is Biblical. As good and helpful as “Online Church” has been, it simply can’t replace being together and worshipping God in person. Don’t get me wrong – online streaming has it’s place. Our church started an online service the year before COVID hit, with the intention of reaching those who couldn’t make it to a physical gathering for whatever reason. We reached people in countries where there was no legal gathered church, and we were able to connect to local people who weren’t able to leave the house due to physical or mental health reasons. We created pastoral teams who were able to visit some of those who had been connecting online, and it was a blessing. Our church will continue to offer online services to those who cannot make it, but they will in no way replace the physical gathering of the church.
Get to church. I know you’ve been out of habit. I have been too. I know how easy it is to sit on your sofa in your pants, turn on YouTube and watch church like you would any other Netflix show. I know how convinient it is to watch church whenever you want. I know how less stressful it is trying to get the kids out of the door in the morning. But trust me; for your own good, for your own spiritual growth and health; get yourself to church. If you have to fight to get into the habit again, make it happen. If it means the kids will grumble for a few weeks, let them grumble.
Your church may not have the kids programme ready again. The music may be different to before. Wearing masks may be difficult and weird (if that’s still a thing where you are) – but who cares. Get yourself to church. Get yourself into the habit of worshipping with other believers. If things like masks, distancing or following guidelines stops you because you think it isn’t right, then just do what Jesus says; die to self, get yourself humbled and go along. Don’t wait until this restriction or that restriction is lifted – just get yourself there (unless you have to isolate for health reasons). If you don’t want to go to worship God with your brothers of sisters because some aspect of the service isn’t to your taste, you’ve made an idol of the service. Die to your own desires, die to convinence, repent, and get yourself there. You’ll thank me later.
2. You’ve become (dis)content with stuff
I have a love/hate relationship with my phone. I love that I have almost all of the collective knowledge of human history packed into a tiny black rectangle that fits in my pocket. I love how convenient it makes things. I love how much easier it is to communicate with people than it was 10 years ago. But I hate how much I think I need it. I hate how much time I find myself spending on it. I hate how distracting it can be, and I hate that picking it up and checking it has become a habit.
I can watch almost any TV show I want at any time, anywhere in my house. Gone are the days when you’d have to wait until your favourite TV show was on in order to watch it. Gone are the days when you had to wait until 9pm for a film to come on, or when you had to go through the bother (lol) of putting a VHS/DVD into a machine to watch something. Gone are the days when you had one TV and you had to watch whatever the boss of the house was watching (or if you were “rich”, you had Sky in different rooms).
Instead, if I want to watch a film in my bedroom, I can pull it up on my laptop, or put it on my phone. No matter where I am, any time of the day. If I’m sitting on the toilet, it takes me all of 4 seconds to pull up my favourite episode of The Office on my phone, turning a 2 minute task into a 15 minute one – much to the annoyance of everyone else in my house.
There are downsides to this too. Our phones are almost too convinient. If I take my Bible out to my garden bench with the intention of reading it, but my phone is in my pocket, 9/10 I’ll end up sitting staring at my phone while my Bible remains closed. 15 minutes could go by, and before I know it the only little time I had to myself is gone, and I’ve wasted it. If I’m going to read my Bible, I’ve had to learn to put my phone (and my kindle, and anything else that could distract me) away into another room. I don’t have the self control to choose myself, so I have to figuratively cut my hand off to remove the temptation.
The Bible somtimes describes being in God’s presence like being at a banquet; being in the presence of the Lord is like being at a table surrounded by the finest wines, meats, breads and fruits you could find anywhere. When we susbtitute God for stuff, it’s like replacing all of that good food with a bag of Haribo. Sure, they might taste nice and make us feel good for a short while, but if that’s all you eat you’re going to end up with diarrhoea. Haribo is good occasionally, but you can’t live off of it. The same is true of our distractions. They’re good things, that can often turn bad if we don’t learn to control them.
The solution: Set limits. If your phone distracts you, don’t take it to bed with you. If you’re easily distracted, get yourself a paper Bible and read that with your phone in another room. If you need to downsize to a dumb phone (something I’ve thought about often, but haven’t had the courage to do yet) go for it.
If you’re always on Netflix, get a friend or family member to set up restrictions with Parental Control. Limit your time, and don’t let them tell you the password to change it, no matter how much you beg/ask/threaten them!
3. You’ve reduced “God” to feelings or emotions
Disclaimer: I am a card-carrying charismatic. I’m a firm believer in the (correct) use of Spiritual Gifts within the church. I fully believe in the laying on of hands and in being filled afresh with the power of the Holy Spirit.
I love an octave jump in my worship music, an uplifting chorus and a good, catchy repeating bridge. As a worship leader, there is no finer sight for me than seeing a congregation on their knees or with their hands raised and eyes squeezed shut in euphoric praise.
While those things are good..like everything else good in this world, we can misuse them, and ultimately make idols of them. And a very big reason I think people don’t “feel” God any more is because we’ve reduced “God” to something we feel. The buzz we get when the beat drops, when the drummer drops out and comes back in perfectly, the emotions we feel as our favourite song is belted out, or when the worship leader or pastor stirs us up, or when the person praying for us talks particularly loudly and uses all of the right buzzwords.
Though I’m currently falling more and more out of love with modern worship trends, I’ve been involved in enough worship bands and events to notice that there is a very real temptation for us to want to create an experience more than anything else.
God does not suddenly arrive when the beat drops. The Holy Spirit is not waiting behind the stage for the chorus to welcome him in. The presence of God is not dictated by the talent of the worship leader or the atmosphere in the room. Prayers are not answered based on how loudly and passionately we can ask them. And the danger for modern evangelicals, especially in charismatic circles, is that we equate experiences or feelings of “God’s presence” with these things.
Our Senior Pastor and my mentor, Peter Anderson once commented that he’s able to worship God in any musical setting, and I think that’s a hugely important point.
If you’re used to upbeat worship music and you can’t “connect” with God during a traditional service with hymns and an organ, it was never God you were connecting with in the first place. In the same way, if you’re used to more subdued music/singing in church and you find yourself unable to worship The Lord with a live band and fancy lights, you’ve put God in a box.
If your opinion on whether or not a sermon was “good” (which, as any preacher will tell you, is a horrible word for describing any message in the first place) is based on how many times the preacher got you fired up enough to shout “amen” loudly, you may have bought into hype more than you have the Word.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you “feel” God in a place of worship – if you are a believer, sealed with the Holy Spirit and standing in the presence of other saints, the Lord is there. He is closer than you can comprehend. Don’t make the mistake of confusing the endorphins exploding through your head wtih the tangible presence of the Lord.
Now, having said all that that’s not to say we may not physically feel things in services. Some people are so afraid of the above that they push too far in the other direction. There are times to weep. There are times to be joyful and cheer and celebrate. There are times when I have been prayed for and physically felt like lightening was shooting through my body. There have been times in private prayer when I have felt a buzz so far and beyond any (legal and illegal) high I’ve ever had. God can’t be put in a box, but he also can’t be shoehorned into fuzzy feelings.
The Solution: I don’t really know, to be honest. For this to change we need to see a cultural shift and an open, ongoing conversation in our churches about what our gatherings are really about. We need to get rid of the cancerous “hype” culture that can so easily invade our services.
Perhaps for a season we can adopt a “less is more” approach – many churches are having to worship differently after the COVID-19 pandemic, and maybe this is a season where we can relearn how to worship in a different setting to what we’re used to.
Perhaps even just acknowleding that we do this is a good step in remedying it…in which case, there you go! You’re welcome.
4. You’ve Lost Sense of the Holiness and Greatness of God
Coffee mugs can be a lucrative business for Christian organisations. It’s not uncommon for me to visit someone and to see a cup decorated with an encouraging verse like John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11 (😬), Psalm 23:1, etc on them. These are nice, comfy, cosy coffee-cup verses that give us as much warmth as the tea we drink from them.
There are some verses I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a coffee mug though. For example, take a look at this passage from Nahum:
The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies.
3 The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
he dries up all the rivers;
Who can stand before his indignation?Nahum 1:2-8 (ESV)
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
7 The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
8 But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries
and will pursue his enemies into darkness
How many of those verses have you seen on coffee cups? Not many I’m guessing! But it’s not as if those verses are any less true than the warm fuzzy ones. The truth is that we sometimes struggle with talking about God like this – even though the Bible doesn’t hold back. I think deep down that’s one of the reasons for our Spiritual Apathy.
One of the seasons when I’ve been most in love, fired up and passionate about the Lord was atfer reading J.I.Packer’s well known book “Knowing God”. Packer described the majesty, power, wrath, love and jealousy of God so powerfully and simply, it blew me away at the time. It was so incredibly liberating having truths about God presented in such a way. It reminded me that:
God is God. I am not.
God is in control. I am not.
God is Holy. Without him, I am not.
God knows best. I do not.
God’s morals are absolute and good. Mines are not.
God is big. I am small.
God is God. I am not.
It hit hard because there is a very real temptation in our conversations about God today for us to present him simply as our buddy. Our pal, who exists simply to empower us and make our worldly lives better. With our pal God beside us, there is no challenge we can’t face! If our problems are Goliath, with God we become David!
Honestly? That’s utter tosh.
Here’s the thing: you aren’t David. And if you’re going to make the mistake of imposing yourself into that story at all, you need to know that who you actually are is one the Israelites cowering in the back, unable to conquer Goliath yourself. Jesus is David. You aren’t.
[He may cringe about it today, but Matt Chandler’s sermon “God is for God [link]” still one of the best of recent years. Go listen to it. I’ve included the extended version as the hype Furtick stirs up (rightly or wrongly – I’ll let you decide) before it is a good example of what I sahred above. It also juxtaposes perfectly with Chandler’s sermon!]
Jesus may be our kind, Gentle and Lowly saviour, but the book of Revelation also paints him as the vengeful redeemer, coming to earth with a sword in his mouth (his word) to proclaim judgement on sin, sinners and to tread on the “winepress of his wrath”, with the wine swirling around his feet representing the blood of his enemies (put that on a coffee cup and see how well it sells…). He is the meek Lamb of God, absolutely – but he’s also the Lion of Judah, and Lions have teeth. Or as C.S.Lewis puts it:
Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.C.S.Lewis, “The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe”
When we forget how big, mighty and sometimes scary God can be (remember in Exodus whenever God appears his people are terrified by his presence?) it can lead us to be apathetic or even uncaring about whether or not we take him seriously.
Remind yourself of the vastness of God.
If you’re wondering how to do that, let me suggest a couple of things. Number 1: ongoing confession. It’s not something we often talk about today, but ongoing confession of sins is a discipline the Bible commands us to do. I’m not talking about sharing your sins with an annoymous priest in a box (although talking through your struggles with a Pastor or trusted friend will certainly help), but confessing our sins to God.
1 John 1 says:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.1 John 1:8-10 (ESV)
Confessing our sins and repenting isn’t something we do once then never do again, nor is it something we do to please God. We’re forgiven and saved upon confessing our faith in Jesus, absolutely. In Christ, we’re forever put on God’s good books. No, ongoing confession and repentence is something we do for our own sake. Or as Tim Keller puts it, repentence is a gift. It reminds us of the gospel, of our need for Christ, and is like having a reset button whenever we stumble and mess up. Ongoing confession and repentence is one of the vehicles God uses to make us more like Jesus every day. 
Why do I suggest that? Because it humbles us. It reminds me of who God is, and who we aren’t.
Secondly, it reminds us of our need for Christ. When I pray and confess, I am reminded of how powerful, mighty and forgiving God is, and how powerless and weak I am.
God’s grace is sufficient and amazing, and the reason for that is because of why we need his grace in the first place. Don’t despair though, because:
5. You May Have Forgotten How Much this Holy and Mighty God Loves you
God’s wrath and his love go hand in hand. We can’t talk about his wrath without his love, and talking about his love doesn’t hit as hard if we don’t first talk about his wrath.
What am I saying? The God of all creation, who describes himself as holy, jealous, wrathful, vengeful, who hates sin, who is above everyone and everything loves you.
How do I know this? Because the terrifying wrath of God was thrown upon his Son in our place. Jesus willingly went to the cross (John 10:11, 17-18). Jesus went to the cross, knowing the joy he would eventually experience in seeing helpless sinners like you and me come to sit at God’s banquet table, as part of his family, warmly and lovingly invited in.
Jesus the Lion is also Jesus the Lamb, and he is gentle and forgiving towards those who would call upon him. You may have your flaws, and you may still struggle with indwelling sin, but in and through Jesus, those are washed away as nothing by the flood of God’s love and mercy.
You may feel Spiritual Apathy because you somehow have it in your head that God is done with you, he’s sick of you failing and failing again, or he’s mad at you because you’ve ignored him the past 18 months. Don’t give those thoughts any space in your head. God’s love for you is not dependant on anything you do or don’t do – it’s based entierly upon what he’s already done. It’s based on the love and obedience of his Son, who loved you enough to die for you in the first place.
Remind yourself of the Gospel every day. Print out some tracts or some of the promises of God that you can pin onto your wall and remind yourself of them. And again; get to church. If you’re at a good church, hopefully you’ll be remined of the above truths every time you go. And when you’re surrounded by other men and women in the same position as you, singing over each other and reminding each other of the goodness and faithfulness of the God who made you, it acts like a cleansing flood, washing away all of the doubts and niggles you have – at least for a little while – which is why we go back every week!
Prayer, Bible reading, being excited about the church – these things aren’t for God’s benefit – they’re for you. My encouragement to you today is that if you find yourself in a season of Spiritual Apathy, the Lord doesn’t love you any less because of it. He is able to sustain you, uphold you and fully restore to you the joy you once had. Acknowledge these things, confess these things, push into him, and let him do the work.
- Incidentally, and this is totally anecdotal, but from my conversations with pastors from different circles, it seems those who have stopped or limited their online usage are seeing a much higher percentage of their church return to physical services than those who continue to offer a strong online presence. Something to ponder on. ↩
- Some like to argue that the above verse doesn’t apply to Christians and that it’s written to non-Christians, but the tense used in the language and the context of the rest of 1 John renders that argument null. ↩